About the same time that U.S. senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, the Toronto Star published an op-ed piece claiming that no person of colour had ever contested a federal party leadership in Canada.
Yet two African Canadians, namely Rosemary Brown and Howard McCurdy, both sought to head the NDP. Brown almost beat Ed Broadbent in 1975, while McCurdy finished fifth to Audrey McLaughlin in 1989.
The overall Canadian media coverage of Obama’s campaign conveys the same only-white-candidates-count attitude. His ability to transform tens of thousands of once-apathetic citizens into activist voters has been disparaged as a “children’s crusade.” His uncynical “audacity of hope” rhetoric has been called “emotional.” His effort to maintain a positive movement is derided as “hypocrisy,” even while it’s his opponent who has run attack ads and used her surrogates to sling mud.
These rebukes may look rather foolish in the weeks ahead.
Clearly, whether Obama wins or loses his historic bid for the Democratic nomination, we must recognize that by any objective measure – fundraising, message, management, or momentum – he is the superior candidate, despite his race and the denigration it has occasioned.
Some assert that Hillary Clinton faces more of an uphill battle because she is a woman. That’s likely so. Yet white women seeking office usually have more voter appeal – despite sexism – than persons of colour in either the U.S. or Canada, which makes Obama’s rise even more significant.
His strategy imitates John F. Kennedy’s in 1960 and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s in 1968: portray yourself as the outsider underdog, promise undefined “change” with definable excitement and mobilize young voters, who have the energy and time to volunteer and make the difference in close races.
In short, the era of the baby boomers is passing. This campaign is about generational change.
Young voters in the U.S. have matured in a world where Afros, Asians, Latinos – and women – actually occupy positions of command and influence. That General Colin Powell was and Condoleezza Rice is the U.S. secretary of state and that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House of Representatives clears the way for both Clinton and Obama to aspire realistically to the presidency.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia continue to exist, yes. But the zeitgeist defined by pop culture has long endorsed the idea of female, black/brown and gay leadership, even if the bourgeois, boomer-dominated, pension-infatuated political class remains sclerotic and reactionary.
Obama embodies and echoes the zeitgeist more than any other candidate in either major U.S. party.
Forget that he’s black; he represents the now. He broadcasts change. Viewed from any angle, Obama means progress. Clinton does not.
Certainly, she has shown herself to be more old boy than new woman. She touts too much bureaucracy, spouts too little poetry. (See Kim Campbell’s prime ministerial takeover from Brian Mulroney.)
Reading Theodore H. White’s classic The Making Of The President 1960, I’m struck by the parallels. If Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate, boasted of his “experience” in 1960, well, it appears that Clinton has borrowed his bullhorn.
Describing campaigns, White opines that “political audiences love to participate; they love to yell; the great orator is the one who can make them feel they are partners with him in whatever he is doing, that they have a role as well as he.” This strength belongs now to Obama.
Race may yet matter in a way that few have contemplated – I mean positively, and not just as a means of netting “black” votes (though there’s nothing wrong with that – unless you think black voters shouldn’t count).
Obama looks McLuhan-cool on TV, speaks as incisively as Malcolm X (whom he slightly resembles) and as suavely as Martin Luther King.
He incarnates the deathless 1960s, when a swath of youth became a new “Greatest Generation”: one that protested war, marched for liberation and tuned in to new technology to amplify electrifying cultural movements.
That Obama is a person of unconflicted mixed heritage and of cosmopolitan education renders him the very image of a postmodern, globalist, 21st-century political leader.
That he possesses “race” makes him part of the visible avant-garde, those who inaugurate trends and styles for everyone else. Barack Obama emerges from the soundscape of Stevie Wonder and Tupac Shakur. Those who honour hiphop will go out and vote for him – in droves.
And that will include an awful lot of folks who happen to be white. Why? Because hiphop speaks to, is, their culture, too.
If they get their way, Obama will be president and the Clintons will be history. We Canucks had better start appreciating this revolutionary possibility.
George Elliott Clarke’s latest book is Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path (Gaspereau Press), a poem-bio of Canada’s “first black prime minister.”